Sunday, April 20, 2008

Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for the New York Times during most of the 1990’s; this book tells the story of her experiences during that time. I have had only a few truly great meals (K-Paul’s, Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House, and the Mansion on Turtle Creek come to mind), but nothing like the feasts described here. “Crisply coated snapper arrives in a shallow bowl of broth. The first taste is tarragon. It is replaced by fennel, which gives way to something that is definitely Chinese. You taste again. The tarragon is gone ans what comes through is the elusive flavor of five-spice powder. In a minute all of these flavors have come together so that you cannot separate them. You take another bite, and then another. Suddenly, disappointingly, the fish is gone.” Much of the book is like this, both haughtily pretentious and deliciously mouth-watering at the same time.

I find journalists to be largely self-important, and critics doubly so. I picked this up expecting to roll my eyes a lot but found it surprisingly compelling. Reichl made heavy use of disguises to avoid being recognized by the various establishments and to get a feel for how the meals and atmosphere appear to the average diner. A typical chapter started with a description of the origin of a typically elaborate costume, segued into the experience at the restaurant under scrutiny, and ended with the actual review as it appeared in the Times. Often she got a bit enthralled with her adopted persona, at times seemingly threatening to become a modern-day Sybil! Along the way we are entertained with amusing glimpses into the life of a critic, including jealous colleagues and overzealous readers. Instead of pictures or illustrations, recipes acted as page filler, varying from scalloped potatoes to moules marinières. All in all, a unique and tasty read.

First Sentence:
“You gonna eat that?”

1 comment:

Steven said...

Mike, you left one great meal off your list:

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